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Teams are groups of like-minded people reviewing things of common interest. Here are a few examples:
Dune. Arrakis. Desert planet. Long before I read Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic, it exerted its pull on me. As a kid, I spent dozens of hours playing Dune II (1992), which kickstarted the real-time strategy genre in gaming, with a thin plot loosely based on Herbert’s novel. I enjoyed Star Wars, which owes many of its ideas and settings to Dune. And I ran away (as you should) from the botched 1984 movie adaptation.
In 2020, how does the novel hold up?
Dune tells the story of a conflict in the far future, with cataclysmic consequences for a humanity that has become an interplanetary civilization. The conflict centers on the planet Arrakis, the only source of “spice”, a mind-enhancing drug needed for space navigation.
Young Paul Atreides, member of one of several powerful Houses that rule the galaxy, joins his father, Duke Leto, on a journey to take charge of Arrakis on behalf of the Emperor, displacing House Harkonnen. The Harkonnens have other plans—and so, it turns out, does the Emperor. Will the inhabitants of the desert planet, the native Fremen, take a side in the conflict? And what is the meaning of Paul’s visions of the future?
Frank Herbert is an incredibly imaginative author, and he manages to pack so many complex ideas into just a few paragraphs that it can make your head spin. The future of Dune is one where humanity has not only invented AI, it has decided to do away with it, in a jihad against technology. Instead of AI, a select few serve as mental computers—mentats—on behalf of the ruling class.
Religion, too, plays a powerful role. A religious order known as the Bene Gesserit has fused faith, eugenics, and mental discipline to pursue a long term agenda alongside secular rulers. Through its Missionaria Protectiva, it has seeded superstitious beliefs in human settlements throughout the galaxy, so it can exploit those beliefs later.
All this world-building is at times dizzying, especially when Herbert uses invented words and concepts without much introduction, leaving the reader to figure out what they mean (or inviting her to read the book’s glossary). But this is not a book without payoff—the characters and the world come alive as the story unfolds.
Herbert wrote five more novels that continued the story, and his son Brian Herbert has co-authored many additional books set in the same universe. While this sheer volume may seem daunting, the story told in Dune stands on its own, with or without sequels or prequels.
Dune is a masterpiece, at times challenging, but highly rewarding. By focusing on timeless themes of power and belief (instead of obsessing about the future of technology), Herbert managed to write a story that is just as much at home in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.
In some ways, it feels more relevant than ever. Part of the book is a plea for ecological literacy (it even features an appendix on the ecology of Arrakis), for understanding the interdependence of life and life-giving resources. And as we grapple with AI not just as a concept but as a reality, Dune depicts a fascinating future where the human intellect is augmented, not replaced.
I’ll withhold judgment on the arc of Herbert’s books until I’ve read more of them—but I can wholeheartedly recommend the first book in the series. A new movie adaptation is in the works, but with a world-wide pandemic, who knows when we’ll actually see it. In the meantime, you can’t go wrong reading the book that started it all.
As my reviews of Gone Home and Firewatch make clear, I am favorably disposed towards exploration games (sometimes described as “walking simulators) where the player explores a story-rich world with relatively few action or puzzle elements.
Tacoma is the second game by the makers of Gone Home, Fullbright Games from Portland, Oregon. In Gone Home, the main character (a woman named Katie) returned to an empty home and tried to find out why her family wan’t there to meet her. In Tacoma, the main character (a woman named Amy) visits an empty space station and tries to find out what happened to its crew.
But where the world of Gone Home was littered with notes and other papers for the player to sort through, Tacoma tells its story through the experiences of the crew, which Amy can review through recovered Augmented Reality recordings. The ghostly figures of the crew can be observed in conversation, taking a smoke break, or playing AR games.
In the lounge of the space station, watching an AR recording of the station’s medical officer talking to its AI. (Credit: Fullbright Games. Fair use.)
Ostensibly, Amy’s job is to recover the valuable “wetware” that powers the ship’s Artificial Intelligence, but in the process, we are learning more and more about the events that caused Tacoma to drift through space without its crew. It quickly becomes clear that an accident happened on Tacoma, but we still don’t know the fate of the crew, and whether there is a deeper mystery to uncover.
In addition to AR recordings, Amy can access some of the crew members’ most intimate personal files—calls and instant messages, emails, private notes. Much of this does not add to the main story, but paints a more complete picture of each crew member’s motivations and emotional connections.
There are no real puzzles, but there are countless objects you can interact with, from books you can pick up to a zero-g basketball game you can play. These details serve no purpose other than to create a richer world for the player to explore.
There’s also a fair bit of world-building to center the story of Tacoma in a future where humans and AI must learn to co-exist, and a small number of corporations is fighting for control of people’s lives. This world is intelligently constructed, and whether or not you find it plausible, it’s internally consistent.
In spite of all this, you’ll likely finish the game in 2-3 hours—double that if you add another playthrough for more exploration or to access the commentary track.
In short, Tacoma is an atmospheric game that lets you feel like you’re on a space station, without having to deal with demons or aliens. As a story, I found it less compelling than Gone Home, in spite of the clever storytelling mechanics. It’s hard to become invested in any of the characters, and the clues we get about their backstories provide very little narrative payoff.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the time I spent on Tacoma. I wouldn’t recommend paying full price for it, but it regularly drops to $5-$7.50, at which it offers good value.
Is rudimentary consciousness a fundamental property of matter? The idea strikes many people as bizarre, because it evokes notions of self-aware household objects and tomatoes screaming in pain as they make their way into the pasta sauce. But it deserves more precise articulation and a fair hearing.
In “Galileo’s Error”, philosopher Philip Goff makes the case for this idea, known as panpsychism, for a general audience. He begins by outlining the problems with dualist mind/matter explanations (where the mind is a separate “thing” that somehow interacts with matter), and with strictly materialist explanations that neglect to offer any explanation for the quality of conscious experience.
What if those qualities are the intrinsic nature of matter itself? In this view, the human mind is continuous with the universe in which it is embedded. There’s no need to postulate “special mind stuff”, to invent deities, or to wave your hands and say “emergent property”.
Instead, in this view, subatomic particles like electrons experience change, and more complex forms of consciousness can be built up (or indeed arise) from simple ones. The qualities of human experience—the color red, the smell of coffee, a loving touch—must have their foundations in matter itself.
Of course, this is not a new idea, and many philosophies and religions have embraced forms of panpsychism. It is not even new to Western philosophy, and Goff especially cites the debates between Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington. This context is where the book offers what I consider to be the most succinct argument in favor of the panpsychist hypothesis (p. 134):
Eddington’s starting point is as follows:
Physical science tells us absolutely nothing about the intrinsic nature of matter.
The only thing we know about the instrinsic nature of matter is that some of it, i.e., the matter inside brains, has an intrinsic nature made up of forms of consciousness.
It is hard to really absorb these two facts, as they are diametrically opposed to the way our culture thinks about science. But if we manage to do so, it becomes apparent that the simplest hypothesis concerning the intrinsic nature of matter outside of brains is that it is continuous with the intrinsic nature of matter inside of brains, in the sense that both inside and outside of brains matter has an intrinsic nature made up of forms of consciousness.
Aurora Borealis, seen from Iceland in February 2014. The complexity of the nonliving world invites the question whether it is fully discontinuous with embodied human experiences. (Credit: Schnuffel2002. License: CC-BY-SA.)
Yet, current scientific attempts to explain consciousness rarely consider it a phenomenon that is even worth studying outside of the context of a brain. And these “explanations” (e.g., efforts to show that certain neural activity is correlated with certain conscious experiences) are at best predictions—they don’t get us much closer to understanding what conscious experience is.
Goff points the finger at Galileo Galilei for setting science on a path that is strictly quantitative, a path where any effort to explain the quality of an experience (the color red, the smell of coffee, a loving touch) is out of bounds, or at least suspect. Goff argues that to disregard these qualities is to disregard fundamental scientific facts. Indeed, no fact is as foundational and undeniable as the reality of our own conscious minds.
Panpsychism is an attractive hypothesis. Like the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, it elegantly resolves tricky questions at the very “bottom” of existence. It also has similar difficulties of testability, which could put it in the “not even wrong” realm of speculation. Perhaps, as our ability to predict conscious states increases thanks to efforts like integrated information theory, we will predict them in places where we wouldn’t expect them. Then the more difficult claim to defend may be that “mere matter” is not continuous with conscious experience.
Philip Goff presents a cogent and beautiful argument in defense of a thesis many “materialists” will seek to dismiss as New Age woo. But the idea that consciousness needs no rudimentary precursor in nonliving matter may itself turn out to be woo. Goff does not assert that the panpsychist hypothesis is correct—only that it should be considered seriously in our efforts to understand consciousness.
The book is strongest when it presents this core argument. Goff lost me in the last chapter, where he makes what I consider to be a very weak argument for a non-deterministic universe and the existence of free will. He argues that “free will” is the “responsiveness to rational considerations”, but it’s not clear why a deterministic brain cannot be “responsive to rational considerations”, and why determinism must be a constraint to be “freed” from. Perhaps that is a matter for another book; in any event, it seems out of place in this one.
I recommend Galileo’s Error not as any definitive answer to questions about the nature of consciousness, but as a very well-reasoned argument for expanding the Overton window of science, especially when it comes to explaining the very qualities that make life worth living.
Can a game be a place?
As the player of Firewatch, you are a man named Henry who starts a job as a lookout in Shoshone National Forest, in Wyoming. In the preamble, we learn that this is an escape from dealing with your wife’s early-onset dementia.
Your only regular human contact is by radio, with a woman named Delilah who works in another lookout tower. Delilah is your boss, and she soon gives you your first assignment: to investigate some illegal fireworks near a lake.
Your relationship with Delilah is influenced by the dialogue choices you make. Mostly, the game keeps you on rails to uncover a larger mystery. This involves a lot of walking around through beautiful landscapes, using your map and compass to find your way.
This is an exploration game—or, as some would say, a walking simulator. The biggest challenges for the player tend to be of the “how do I get from A to B” variety. Nonetheless, Firewatch manages to be immersive and at times even menacing. The game targets an adult audience—as the developers put it, it is a “video game about adults having adult conversations about adult things.”
Firewatch offers many scenic views of its version of Shoshone National Forest. (Credit: Firewatch by Campo Santo. Fair use.)
After you finish the story, you can still continue to explore Shoshone National Forest at your leisure (and collect the game’s soundtrack in a mini-game). The landscapes really are beautiful, whether you’re walking through Thunder Canyon towards the lake, admiring a sunset, or exploring the forest at night with your flashlight on.
It is a very short game, and like life itself, its story is ultimately a bit untidy. You’re unlikely to get more than 4-6 hours of play time out of it. But it is a game that is also a place, and years after playing it, you may be tempted to visit it again.
The current regular sales price for Firewatch is $20. It has repeatedly been on sale for $5, so I recommend wishlisting it and buying it at a lower price.
James Gleick is widely regarded as a masterful science writer, and for good reason. Through the 526 pages of The Information (2011), Gleick spins an accessible tale about Charles Babbages’s difference engine, about Turing machines and Maxwell’s demon, about Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and Shannon-Fano coding and Boolean algebra, all in service of illuminating a concept that may seem ineffable: information itself.
Gleick shows how complex computation and signal processing problems led to the development of information theory, which gave us ways to quantify information and to speak about the entropy of a body of text. This in turn touched countless other disciplines, and made the networked world we find ourselves in today possible. Towards the end of the book, Gleick explores the wonders of this world, including Wikipedia.
The book was written before recent debates about fake news, Twitter bot armies, and similar disinformation campaigns, but Gleick anticipated that the burdens of selecting true from false, and forgetting that which should be forgotten, would only increase.
This is a book that aims for breadth (from talking drums to telegrams, from analog computers to digital ones), not depth. If you’re looking for an introduction to information theory, look elsewhere. As a history of ideas, The Information succeeds brilliantly. Page after page, the book places a question in the reader’s mind, then addresses it; it weaves together anecdotes and facts, never overloading the reader with jargon, but not shying away from complexity.
As Gleick points out, without selecting that which matters, we end up with a Library of Babel, conceived by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges as a library that contains all possible books of a certain length. In the libraries of the real world, this book has earned its place to give us a shared history and vocabulary for the conversations to come.
Controls are a little hard to figure out
(apologies to Randall Munroe, https://xkcd.com/2192, licensed CC BY-NC 2.5)
Although a minor tragedy in itself, since it represents a noble skill (engraving) being put towards ignoble ends (as evidenced by the intro by Hindenburg, propagandizing the Central Powers’ lost territory in the Great War; this leading to popular appetite for WWII, a much grander tragedy), each image puts one standing instantly in front of the pastoral fields and elegant churches depicted.
In How to Hide an Empire, historian Daniel Immerwahr argues that we know far too little about the history of United States beyond the contiguous states that make up the “logo map”:
As in the example above, representations of the United States often exclude Hawai’i and Alaska, to say nothing of “territories” like Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, or the Northern Marianas. But the stories of the millions of people who live there deserve to be heard, and Immerwahr does his best to tell them.
To set the stage, Immerwahr describes the expansion of the United States from coast to coast, and the broken promises and systematic removal of native tribes that came with it. Whether tribes sought to assimilate or to fight, their land was taken; projects like the creation of the State of Sequoyah failed. Instead, US states borrowed the names of native tribes whose land was stolen to create them.
The story continues with America’s quest for bird poop—the annexation of island territory to harvest accumulated guano—and culminates in a America’s colonialism binge at the dawn of the 20th century. In the Spanish-American War, America notably “acquired” the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The Philippine-American War that followed—a war in which Filipinos fought for liberation from American colonial rule—caused a civilian death toll in the hundreds of thousands.
The Cancer Man
But the Philippines are not the only country that resisted American colonialism. From the beginning, many Puerto Ricans have favored independence, especially in light of the overt racism they encountered in contact with visitors from the US mainland.
Immerwahr tells the story of Cornelius Rhoads, a US mainland pathologist who visited Puerto Rico as part of an international health effort. Rhoads not only harbored deep racial hatred for the Puerto Ricans, he bragged about murdering them:
They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more.
No evidence of these crimes was ever found (which does not mean that they did not take place), and Rhoads called the letter a joke. He faced no significant consequences for it, and became a celebrated cancer researcher (and an expert in chemical and biological weapons, charged with approving tests on human subjects during the war).
Time Magazine cover featuring Cornelius Rhoads, June 27, 1949. (Credit: Time Magazine. Fair use.)
The Rhoads letter was a major scandal in Puerto Rico that drove many to join its burgeoning independence movement. One of them was Oscar Collazo, who joined with another Puerto Rican nationalist in an attempt to assassinate US President Harry Truman in 1950.
Due to the historical amnesia that characterizes America’s relationship with its “territories”, it was only in 2002 that Rhoads’ name was removed from a prestigious award due to the letter in which he bragged about murdering Puerto Ricans. “And that’s how you hide an empire”, Immerwahr observes.
The Empire of Points
The later part of the book mainly deals with the question why America did not become an empire in the British mold after World War II. Instead, the US relinquished control over one colony (the Philippines, through the Treaty of Manila) and sought to establish no new colonies elsewhere. Military bases around the world—a “pointillist empire”—replaced the conventional model of control over vast swaths of territory.
Immerwahr sees multiple reasons for this change, most notably:
the growing rise of independence movements around the world, which made colonies an increasingly costly proposition;
America’s leadership in synthetics, logistics, and standardization—achieved in significant part through wartime efforts—which enabled it to project military and economic power throughout the world, without being dependent on territorial control;
wartime weariness of US troops, who wanted to go home, not occupy a country like the Philippines they had fought side-by-side with the Filipinos to defend.
Immerwahr concludes by examining the political and cultural impact of US military bases, and the connection between this new form of imperial power and the threat of terrorism organized from many small, well-hidden locations.
Immerwahr is a very talented writer, and How to Hide an Empire is full of facts about the “Greater United States” most readers are unlikely to be familiar with. While this isn’t a funny book, Immerwahr isn’t shy to use humor and the first person intermittently throughout the book, without it seeming out of place.
All of this is a potent combination, and I found the book to be a real page-turner. My only criticism is that the author, in emphasizing the role of territory (from colonies to military bases), ends up spending very little time discussing the many other ways the US has projected imperial power, from overthrowing governments to meddling in elections.
While I don’t believe for a moment that this was the author’s intent, readers unfamiliar with this larger history might come away with the impression that the territorial story is the whole story. A larger analytical frame would have served the book well, but as it is, it remains a very readable and insightful analysis of America’s relations with the people who live in the United States beyond the logo map.
Good 100% vegan place to have a decent meal. The service was very friendly and quick. The food was good.
No alcoholic beverages are available.